While much is the same, some customs and traditions in Austria are different. Christmas at home was special. I have so many great memories. What an amazing childhood I had. I was fortunate to spend twelve wonderful years with my Grandma on our farm, and now looking back, I could fill books with stories and anecdotes.
Christmas vacation started on the 22nd of December or the Friday before. Loaded with bags of clothes and presents, we left the boarding school in Bavaria, and would not come back until the second Monday in January. We carried the bags to the waiting cars or busses, who brought us to the train station, from where we would spread out to reach the cities, countries, and places we called home. For months we had knitted and crafted presents for parents, family, and friends in the evenings in our private time after school and homework sessions, under the eagle eyes of the nuns who thought us everything, we needed to know.
Until we turned 16 we weren’t allowed to use our allowance to buy presents, everything we gave had to be hand-made, baked or cooked by us. Back then I didn’t understand and found the rule cruel and unfair, now with age, I see why it had been set in place for a reason. We learned skills we would never forget and all kids were equal. The rich and poor, crafted the same things and paid the same amount for the needed supplies. While my grandma put much of what I bought her later on in a special cupboard to be saved for when the time was right, the presents I hand-made were always honored and displayed right away, for many years -even when they weren’t so perfect.
Crafting Christmas decorations is a big part of the Austrian Holiday season. Stars made out of shiny foil, wax, or straw, later used to decorate the tree and the rooms.
Many don’t know that, but in Austria, Christmas time officially starts December 4th, on St. Barbara’s day. It is a tradition to cut off a branch of an apple or cherry tree that day, it will be put in a vase in the living room, and if the branch blooms until Christmas Eve, it means happiness and health for the whole family. In some regions, it is also rumored that a wedding might just be around the corner for a thriving branch.
In Austria and Germany, Christmas itself is celebrated on the evening of December 24th. After spending the day trimming the Christmas tree, cooking, and cleaning the house, a window in the living room is opened on Christmas Eve in anticipation of the Christmas Angel (Christmas Child).
Of course, each family has its own traditions, different dishes, and rituals, and depending on the age of the children certain sequences, but mostly they all share the same traditions.
On December 24th, at the latest, the Christmas tree, usually a spruce or fir, is set up for Christmas (Weihnachten). Families with older children have made it a tradition to trim the tree Christmas tree together, some families, especially farmers like we were, went the night before into the forest and cut a tree on their own property. Some things I will never forget, nothing is more fun than cutting down a frozen tree.
Dinner on Christmas evening is rather small, many serve Wiener sausages with Kraut or potato salad, others enjoy a fondue or a raclette. In our home, we had sausages with Kraut one year and herring salad, homemade of course, the next.
Dinner is served early on the 24th and way before the celebration of the evening begins.
If there are small children in the house the tree will of course be decorated by the Christmas Angel, which means the parents trim the tree the night before and in secret. Then the door to the living room stays locked all day on the 24th, so the children can’t get in.
In the evening, the Christmas Angel enters the room through the open window, somehow kids will always miss the angel’s arrival. As soon as the Christmas Angel has done the work, the candles on the Christmas tree shine magnificently, and all the gifts are wrapped and placed underneath. The ringing of a small bell is the signal to the children that the time has come. The kids enter the room, mostly running, trying to get to the window to get a glimpse of the Christmas Angel after all.
With the tree shining in all its glory and presents waiting to be opened, the kids start to recite the poems they have learned in school or kindergarten, in many houses the whole family plays music together, and old familiar Christmas songs are sung by all. “Silent Night,” “Oh Tannenbaum/Oh Christmas Tree”, or my favorite, “Alle Jahre Wieder/Every year again.”
We made music together. A guitar, a small organ, and a zither, played by my grandma. Some families who had spent their summer vacation on our farm had asked her to rent out the rooms for the wintertime as well. Our farmhouse was full of people. I taught the city folks how to ski and made a ton of money.
After the songs, many families read the Christmas story from the Bible.
Then finally it’s time to unwrap the presents. There is not much time to play with the new toys. The Christmas Mass at church starts at midnight, and it is tradition to walk to the church, in ice and snow. Many Austrian cities have postponed the start now a little and the mass is set for 10 or 11 pm. For many families, attending the Christmas Mass at Christmas is part of the Holidays, no matter how religious they are. It is a ritual that has become a tradition.
The next two days are the official Christmas Holidays. Shops and offices stay closed, only emergency workers are allowed to work, both days are paid Holidays. The 25th is the day of the big feast. For many, the Christmas lunch or dinner is the highlight of the Christmas season and the menu varies from state to state. In the Burgenland and Tyrol where I am from, often goose is served with red cabbage and potato dumplings, in Styria a roast and in Vorarlberg, they spend hours eating a cheese Raclette. In Carinthia they enjoy sausages, sauerkraut, and black bread, many other families eat fish like carp on one of these days.
On the 25th we had duck or goose, and on the 26th my Grandma served carp. She spent hours in the kitchen and when the meal was served I tried my best to eat it. “Can we cover the face, please,” I asked one year and from that moment on, a headless carp was served for many years to come.
She cut and dried some fins of the carp, and everybody she cared for, got a tiny folded envelope made out of parchment paper before New Year’s. “Put in your wallet and money will never be tight.” We all obeyed.
On the 27th of December, the best skiers of the village meet, and they train for the big torch run on New Year’s Evening.
At 11 pm that night, the skiers make their way up the highest mountain in the dark, with the help of a ski lift at first, the rest they climb by foot with the skies over their shoulders.
Then the oldest lights up the torches and they start slowly skiing down, for everybody to see. The people of the village are standing outside, watching them, and at 12 am the firework begins. The skiers then stop halfway down and wait for a while, then they spread out and they place the burning torches in the snow, showing the numbers of the new year which will be seen all through the valley, all night long. The skiers then ski down in the dark and go home. Proud to have been part of the torch run.
The Christmas tree stays decorated again until 6 January, the day on which children, dressed as the Holy three kings, Casper (Gaspar), Melchior, and Balthasar (The Sternsinger/Star singers) move from house to house singing, and marking the doors with consecrated chalk.
*C + M + B*, framed by the current year is written on the doorposts or on a nearby wall. The letters stand for the blessing “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” which translates to “Christ bless this house”.
Last year a young man called the cops when he saw the chalk numbers on his entrance door. Not knowing of the customs, he thought it was a sign left by criminals to mark his house to be robbed. It’s sad to see the old traditions so misunderstood.
I am not sure but I assume that most of my readers don’t regularly listen to zither music. It’s also called the lap harp, and it is a typical Austrian mountain instrument.
The story and history can be found here